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Taking notes and paying attention during class can be... difficult to say the least. And studying is the worst. Luckily, there are a few methods and tips that you can follow to help maximize your note-taking while also paying attention in class. If you find that you have trouble studying, there are a few tips near the bottom of this page too.


Computer, Tablet, Or Pen (Or Pencil) & Paper?

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This largely depends on a few things. These include the type of course and whether or not your instructor will allow you to use a computer or tablet (both will be referred to as "device" from now on) during class, how neat your writing is, and personal preference.

The type of class is very important. If the course is in-person, face-to-face, check the syllabus to see whether or not your instructor specifies if you can use a device. Otherwise, you will want to contact your instructor and ask them if you can use a device during class. If they do allow you to use a device, follow common courtesy. Mute your device and notifications, only have the program where you are typing your notes open, and most importantly, do not get side-tracked by notifications, social media, or shopping.

If the instructor does not allow you to use a device, then you will have to write your notes down and type them up later (which is a great way to review and study). If your instructor posts the slides up before class, it might be worth it for you to print them and write notes that way (we'll talk more about this note-taking method below).

For courses that are completely online, the choice is yours. Just make sure you find an appropriate space to view the online materials and make notes. This space should be relatively quiet, with few distractions. If you plan on taking written notes, make sure you have ample space on a hard surface to do so.

The next thing is how neat your handwriting is. Notes are only useful if they are readable when you go back to study them. If your handwriting is not the best, you may want to use a tablet or computer. If you don't have access to either of these things, you may want to choose a note-taking method below that requires the least amount of writing. Then, after class, type up your notes and review the slides or other materials for that class. While doing this, write (or type on a different page) any questions you have or points that you want clarification on. Either email your instructor these or ask them during office hours.

The final thing is whether you are comfortable using pen and paper or a device. Note-taking using pen and paper is traditional and is commonly accepted as a way to better understand the material being learned. It's easier to abbreviate notes, draw pictures, and so on. On the other hand, typing notes can be faster and cleaner. Your computer notes can also be saved to the cloud so they are easily accessible on any device while you are studying. The best of both worlds is a tablet. You can switch from drawing pictures and diagrams back to quickly typing notes. However, a useful way to review and study your notes might be to use both pen and paper and your computer. After class, either type up your handwritten notes (as best you can-- maybe a drawing or note-taking app will be useful) or write out your typed notes.

General Note-taking Tips

These tips apply to all note-taking methods. They are general things to help prepare you to take notes, things to keep in mind while taking notes, and what to do with notes after you've written them.

Note-taking Preparation

  • Eat a snack before class (especially if your class goes through a mealtime). If you are snacking during class, you probably are not taking notes. Or worse, you are being noisy and distracting your classmates. If you eat a snack beforehand, you won't be thinking about lunch instead of listening.
  • Stay hydrated with water.
  • Be prepared. Bring extra pen, pencil, lead, and paper. If you are using a computer or tablet, make sure it is fully charged and you bring your charger. The worst thing to happen is to run out of ink or that your device runs out of juice in the middle of class.
  • Read/watch (or at least skim) the assigned materials before class. It is unlikely your instructor assigned you reading or video just for busywork. Often, these materials will either introduce a topic that will be covered next class or help to reinforce a topic that was just covered.
  • If the slideshow for the next class is posted early, go through it.
  • If you are taking a course that uses recorded video/audio, it may be worth it to watch the video/listen to the audio once all the way through without pausing (except if you need to go to the bathroom, answer a phone call, etc.). Then, once you've done that, watch/listen to it again and take notes. Don't forget to pause the recording while you are taking notes. If you are not sure about what you just heard, rewind the recording.
  • Choose a note-taking method that best suits you. 

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Note-taking During Class

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  • Do NOT write everything that is being said, written on the board, or is on the slides. Paraphrase instead. Otherwise, you will get bogged down trying to transcribe every word rather than paying attention to the material or presentation
  • Write in your own words
    • Write in print instead of cursive. This can help with deciphering your notes later. Writing in print also forces you to slow down and write deliberately.
  • Write the name of the course and/or the topic of the class and the date on a fresh page. Number subsequent pages. This will be useful for organizing your notes later on, especially if you use the same notebook for each course.
  • Use a different notebook or section of your notebook for each course. If you are using a device, open up a new file and store that file in a folder that has the name of the course and semester year (ex, FYE101A_Fall2021). This way notes do not meld together and are easily accessible for you to review later
  • Pay attention to what is being presented on slides, written on the board, or being repeated. These are often important things (the main points, sub-points, or important details) that your instructor wants you to remember
    • Watch out for keywords and phrases such as "Importantly...", "Most useful...", "To conclude...", "A brief introduction..." and so on
    • Pay attention to the way the instructor is presenting. If they move away from the podium to point at a specific word or phrase, chances are it's important for you to take note of it
  • Use Abbreviations (abbr => abbreviation, ex => example, b4 => before, etc => etcetera, H2O => water, b/c => because, pt => point and so on), symbols, and pictures. In fact, you may find that your major has plenty of commonly used abbreviations or shorthand systems and symbols to represent different ideas or phrases. If you are coming up with your own, write down your shorthand and the meaning so you can refer back to it later. You can also use the Ford Improved Shorthand Method. Simple pictures can also help with quickly getting an idea or concept down on paper without needing to think about the words to explain them.
  • If you have a question, raise your hand and wait to ask or jot it down to ask later
  • Whatever note-taking method you choose, try to stick with it for at least that day and switch to a different one later
  • Do not try to color-code your notes during class-- do that later. Use a single color (other than black) and/or switch up colors for each course
  • Spelling and grammar are unimportant during class, but you can (and should!) correct them later

Using Your Notes After Class

  • Within the next 24 hours, look at your notes and organize them
  • Rewrite your notes and review them (if you want to color-code or highlight your notes, you can do that too). This is particularly useful if you do not have neat handwriting or took notes using a computer or tablet
  • Correct spelling and grammatical mistakes
  • Jot down questions. These can be questions for review or questions that you want to ask your instructor
  • If you are confused about a concept, email your instructor or visit their office hours before the next class
  • For both of the above, see if reviewing the course material (if/when available) might help

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Note-taking Methods

Below we quickly describe various methods of note-taking and give a few examples. Find one that interests you or speaks to you the most. Then, try it out by taking notes of this page or notes in class. If you don't like it, move on to a different method. In some cases, you may find that a combination of note-taking methods suits your note-taking style the best. If you have difficulty seeing an image, click on it to expand it.

Outline Method

This method is likely the most commonly used. You write a point, go to the next line and indent, write a bit about it and go to the next line and do the same. The Outline method organizes notes based on main points and sub-points, with quick descriptions of each. Kind of like following a recipe for a three-course meal.

It is useful for keeping organized notes during class and helps to see connections between points and ideas. However, going back to review notes using the Outline Method may become daunting or even confusing. 

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Cornell Method

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This method is great for reviewing and organizing notes. The Cornell Method breaks up a sheet of paper into 3 sections: 2 columns, and 1 row at the bottom. 1 column is used for notes during class.  A second, smaller column is used for jotting down questions, providing clarifying points/definitions, and/or resources, and picking out key points after class. The third section is a footer for providing a brief summary of the lesson, highlighting major points and details, done after the class.

If you are interested in a downloadable template, click this link here.

Mind Mapping Method

Also known as the "Mind Tree", it is one of the more creative methods. Start with the lecture title (or key topic) in the center of the page. Then, for each sub-topic or key detail, create another bubble and connect it to the main topic. For each point about the sub-topic, make another bubble and connect it to the sub-topic(s) that it is about. The Mind Mapping Method is useful for showing connections between topics and points. Keep each bubble down to 2-4 words at most. If you need to clarify points/bubbles or add details, you can do that later.

Mind Maps are also often used to create quick outlines for writing essays.

In the example on the right, we used Google Drawing though there are plenty of other dedicated applications, such as Google JamboardMicrosoft Whiteboard, or Miro.

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Chart Method

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This method is very simple and extremely useful if you know the main points/topics beforehand. Title each column with a topic or key point. Write details about that topic in its column. The Chart Method is great for quick note-taking and later review of specific topics or points.

This is similar to creating a shopping list if you already know what meals you have planned for the week, or maybe an activity planner for a vacation.

Sentence Method

A simple method used for taking quick notes and similar to the Outline Method. The Sentence Method is organized by topics, with sentences underneath. Keep in mind, "sentences" in this context just mean a single complete thought-- you can still use abbreviations, symbols, and pictures. Do not get hung up on spelling and grammar. Save that for rewriting your notes later. The important thing here is that each key detail of a main point/topic is on its own line.

This method is similar to creating a more detailed recipe, telling you exactly what to do and for how long, for a 3-course meal.

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Flow Method/Sketch Notes

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Flow notes are great for learning in the moment or during class. They can use any combination of the above methods (charts or diagrams, sentences, outlines, mind-mapping, etc.) to create a "flow" of notes. Or you can do whatever you want-- let the creativity flow with drawings, arrows, bubbles, and so on. However, the Flow Method is not great for review.

For a more creative version of the Flow Method (called Sketch Notes), take a look at Sketch Note Army:

This can be offset somewhat by using the Cornell Method.

Slides Method

Perhaps the easiest of the methods. If your instructor posts the slides before class, you can print them. In PowerPoint, go to File>Print. From there, you can choose the print layout. Recommended layouts are Notes, which will print the slide on the top half of the page and leave the bottom half for you to write notes (and, if the instructor typed notes in the Presenter notes area, those will be printed too), Outline, which pretty much prints the notes out similarly to the Outline Method above, and 3-slides, which will print 3-slides on one half of the page and leave space for you to write notes on the other half. Or, if you want to use your slides on a device instead, choose File>Export>Create Handouts. This will export a Word Document that you can then type on or export as a PDF and use Adobe Reader.

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Recommended printing options

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How to create handouts

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How Do I Use My Notes to Study?